GREENE COLUMN: Sea Islanders key to study of 2 cancers

Marvella E. Ford

African-Americans on the Sea Islands may have something unique to offer.

Because of their direct lineage to Africa, they may hold the answer to why blacks in the United States develop and die from breast and prostate cancers more often than whites.

Hollings Cancer Center and S.C. State University researchers want to study their specific genetic makeup to help them develop better drugs to fight the cancers' disproportionate effect on blacks.

An $800,000 federal grant will be used to conduct the study.

Marvella E. Ford, associate director of Hollings' Cancer Disparities Program and the grant's principal investigator, said islanders hold the key to research because they are the most genetically homogenous group of blacks in the country. Many are direct descendants of Africans brought over on slave ships.

In South Carolina, black men are three times more likely to die from prostate cancer than white men. Black women are 1 1/2 times more likely to die from breast cancer than white women, Ford said.

In the near future, Ford said these residents may be asked to simply donate blood or tissue samples. Two other groups also will be included in the study: blacks without Sea Island heritage and whites.

Genetic materials from all three groups then will be studied to determine differences and similarities.

Ford, a breast cancer survivor herself, knows there is some reluctance among African-Americans to participate in medical studies because of past abuses, such as The Tuskegee Syphilis Study. In the 1932 study, 400 black men were never told they had the disease and were never treated for it.

A participant in various studies herself, Ford said the syphilis study should never have happened. However, it is now time for African-Americans to start thinking about what came out of that study.

Medical trials now are very strict and must pass institutional and human rights review boards. Informed consent is a requirement now.

She said more blacks need to participate in studies and clinical trials. "As we build more trust between academic institutions such as MUSC and local communities, more people will participate in the studies and trials that are conducted at these institutions."

She said one of her major concerns is "I don't want our community to be left out because we didn't participate. There is nothing to fear now."

An MUSC health forum will be held on Johns Island on Jan. 21 to talk about the study and share information on other ongoing studies.